Composing With Nature
Over a hundred years ago, F. Schuler Mathews wrote the book, Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music. It was a shocking kind of bird book: the author wrote out the notations of the bird songs on sheet music paper.
Just like he was copying down a ditty that he had heard at the park and wanted to remember it.
There were clef notations, key signatures, tempo indications, and even rhythmic markings.
Birds were to be considered, at least in this book, as real musicians.
A hundred years later, Judy Pelikan adapted Mr. Mathews’s book, filled it with illustrations, and reissued this idea of the professional nature of bird song.
Any one of us who has walked down a street on a fine spring morning knows that birds don’t just sing random notes. They have their own definite tunes.
Or at least we think they do.
Trying to track down just what bird was screaming me awake every morning this spring I turned to local bird experts. The pattern that I heard and tried to imitate was not a familiar one.
I could see the bird. I could describe it fairly well. (At least I thought so.) But, again, nothing I said sounded familiar to people who knew birds. And knew the kind of birds that frequented our area.
I thought this ridiculous. Surely I didn’t have a rare bird that no one else had seen or heard.
So I rolled up my virtual sleeves and went to work.
I came across a picture of the bird I thought was serving as my new morning alarm. But tracking down its song was another matter altogether.
The bird I thought I saw didn’t sound like any of the taped bird songs that were associated with this bird.
So I wondered about other things, other strange things I noticed about the birds in the backyard. And let the matter drop.
Until one day, I was on a bird information site, and there was my little pet bird (or, perhaps, I was his pet), and I tapped the little Listen to this bird button and there it was: a circular loop repeated three times.
It was my bird.
At this point the one really big thing I had learned was that birds do not always sing the same song.
And then I began to think about other birds. We can immediately recognize the look of a robin, but do we know what one sounds like?
And so poking here and there and matching the sound with the sight of a bird became a nice summer project.
We have books about birds, and tapes of what they sound like on any given day. We have applications that we can install on our cell phones that, when we tape the sound of a bird, will identify the bird for us. Or at least offer some suggestions of what it might be.
One bird. One sound. Or many sounds.
But the focus is always just on one bird.
One bird at a time.
Here is the Tufted Titmouse. Here is the Mourning Dove. The Brown Thresher.
And so many more.
We can study their movements. We can even try to explain them. Watch how they interact with other birds, other animals, and people.
But, again, the emphasis of each study is on just one bird.
Cornell Ornithology Laboratory has lots and lots of information on bird songs. I found myself on one of its pages. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but as I scrolled down it, I saw that it was breaking up bird song by different qualities: tone, repetition, pitch, and so on.
It grouped a bunch of different bird songs together by these qualities.
I noticed a bird I wanted to listen to and tapped, the Go button. And off I went, listening to the fluid tones of whatever bird it was.
I started thinking of something else and realized with a start that the bird I was listening to had changed its tune radically. I went back to the Cornell Lab page and saw that my tapping the Go button on one bird had started in motion the playing of the entire playlist associated with the quality “my” bird was sorted under.
So I sat there, listening to one bird song flowing into the next. When it got the to bottom of the list, it joyously jumped back up to the top and started all over again.
Listening to this batch of songs that played together as though it were written that way – here we are back to the idea that birds are musicians – I wondered why there was no book of bird songs grouped together. A composition of what it sounds like to sit and listen to a Blue Jay sounding off, while a Sparrow twitters, and a Crow flies overhead.
In early spring, in The Scraggly Woods behind the house, what sounds like thousands of birds come and perch and have at it. You can hear them for a good long time if walking away down the road. Four in the early evening brings a gentle curtain down on them as they nestle down and take a break for the night. It’s a stunning silence.
I know that I can buy recordings of general bird sounds. Someone has stuck a microphone outdoors somewhere and hit Play and there you go. But these kind of recordings are devoid of musicality. They are edited by the whim of the record producer, with no sense of how these birds, seemingly randomly associated, are really singing together.
There are notes close up, and some far away with a kind of echoing quality. With fast twitters flowing between the more staccato notes.
It’s a composition.
And there are no books that I know of or even recordings that work to show us how to appreciate this natural phenomenon.
Which is too bad. For nature is generous in providing us with so many different symphonies.
That we don’t know enough to listen to.